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Summer Internships: Bella Gerstmann '24

August 4, 2023
Headshot of Bella Gerstmann

Name: Bella Gerstmann
Class Year: 2024
Major: Linguistics
Minor: Africana Studies
Hometown: Highland Park, NJ

Internship Organization: DIRE, Reformed Church of Highland Park
Job Title: Intern
Location: Highland Park, NJ

What's happening at your internship? We would love to hear what kind of work you are doing!

DIRE is an organization supporting Spanish-speaking immigrants to survive and thrive in New Jersey through help with housing, legal assistance, and more. I've been helping the office out with this, taking on tasks ranging from attending free children's programming to collecting families' rent payments to signing families up for NJ Family Care. Aside from providing crucial support, doing this work has helped me build relationships with these newly-arrived community members, which supports the other side of my job: language teaching. I alone run English language classes for Spanish speakers twice weekly both in Highland Park and the nearby town of South River. I've also taken on leading both virtual art and English language classes for unaccompanied minors through Accompany Now!, another organization under the church. Starting this week, I'm also leading twice weekly Spanish language classes for English speakers, with the goal of supporting communication and mutual aid between newly arrived and longstanding community members.

Notebook with drawings and a plate with a cookie.
Drawing I did of some kids at a free workshop on decorating cookies.

Why did you apply for this internship?

I've been providing informal English lessons through this organization for about a year whenever I'm home from school. Knowing I would have time this summer, I reached out to the church, offering to expand my work to a full-time position. Together we decided how I could best help out, and luckily I received the grant from Bryn Mawr to support me in working full-time.

Was there anything special about how you found this internship?

After reading "A Feminist Ethic of Risk" by Sharon D. Welch for a class in sophomore year, I realized that the biggest impact I could have was on my own community. I knew that the Reformed Church of Highland Park ran a number of aid and community programs, so that summer, I reached out to the head pastor, asking how I could get involved. Because of my Spanish speaking ability, and my experience language teaching as a Spanish TA at Bryn Mawr, we decided that I would offer ELL classes for Spanish-speaking immigrants. I've been involved in this way during all my school breaks since, culminating with this self-designed internship this summer.

Poster with sticky notes.
"I can say / I want to say" activity from an adult ELL class for Spanish speakers I'm teaching.

What has been your favorite part of this internship?

I truly love every aspect of this internship, it feels like exactly what I want to be doing. I love knowing what I'm doing matters. I love meeting new people in my community and spending time with them. When my work involves driving people — to doctor's appointments, to the English lessons I'm giving, etc. — I ask my passengers if they want to choose the music. I've gotten to hear lots of new songs and genres this way and share moments of joy with my clients.

What is something you have learned from your internship that you didn't expect?

I've learned that the hardest part of helping people is realizing the limits of what you can do. Through the church's Affordable Housing Commission (AHC), DIRE and other organizations provide housing to clients in need. As huge as the AHC has grown, it is not always enough for the demand. In this and other areas, I've seen multiple cases already of people we aren't sure we can help. Taking on the job of helping also means taking on the job of refusing help.

Can you talk about the skills you are learning and why they are important to you?

I'm learning a huge range of skills, from how to enroll kids in a new school to how to collect rent payments. The biggest issues, though, are more questions I'm exploring than things I can say I'm done learning. How do I teach a language to people who can't always come to class? To a group that's at all different levels? Should I prioritize memorizing phrases that could be immediately useful or teach grammar and vocab so students understand the language? I wish I had the answers already, but I don't, and I know that by being here and trying my best, I am still making a positive impact.

Poster with drawing of two figures.
"When I'm with my family, I feel happy" drawing by a child in my virtual art class for unaccompanied minors.

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced at your internship?

The biggest challenge, as I mentioned before, is seeing cases where it's not immediately clear that there's any way I can help. I try to get creative with what little I know and keep reaching out to others who can help. But sometimes, I have to accept that, for now, there is nothing to be done.

Can you give us three adjectives and three nouns that describe your internship experience?

Rewarding, multi-faceted, bilingual

Community, teaching, learning

What is most rewarding about your internship?

The whole thing is rewarding! Creating relationships with the people I work with, being able to help them in any way, and learning all along the way, makes me excited to wake up in the morning and come into work.

Was this internship what you expected it to be?

I think the only surprise was that I'm doing more of the social work and helping clients out in a broad range of ways and less language teaching up to this point. But this week, I'll be starting my Spanish lessons for English speakers and the lessons for the Accompany Now! kids, so the balance is already shifting.

Visit the Summer Internship Stories page to read more about student internship experiences.

Linguistics Africana Studies